The Chernoff Chronicles: Celebrating 25 Years of WFAN

The nation’s first all-sports radio station is about to celebrate 25 years, and FishbowlNY is joining in the accolades. Beginning today, we start a special, week-long series commemorating WFAN’s silver milestone July 1.

There are interviews with two charter members of the station, the first person on the air and the signature voice a quarter-century later. But we begin with a look back through the eyes of operations manager Mark Chernoff, who joined WFAN in 1993.

WHN owned the frequency at 1050 when Emmis suits, led by Jeff Smulyan, decided country music had run its course. Smulyan, sales manager Joel Hollander, and others flipped the battle-tested country format in 1987 to sports. It was a mixed blessing, as WFAN was an untouched canvas on the radio easel.

“Its earliest incarnation was very different from what the ‘FAN eventually became,” Chernoff says. Specifically, the programs were national in flavor, with many short-form features interspered within the shows. Original programming also consisted of 4 sports updates per hour, as opposed to today’s “20-20” version. The Mets and WFAN have been perfect together since the station’s inception.

Many weekend personalities, not based in New York, were flown in on Emmis’ dime. “They made a lot of money. It cost a lot of money,” Chernoff says. “And that was kind of the direction.”

Aside from the Mets games, the station’s main attraction was supposed to be cantankerous talk show host, Pete Franklin. But he suffered a heart attack before day one, leaving the afternoon slot in the hands of subs throughout the summer.

WFAN’s first morning show was hosted by longtime TV sportscaster Greg Gumbel. But it was 15 months later when WFAN really arrived on the scene, assuming the historic frequency of 660, home to WNBC for decades.

“They moved in October of 1988 during the Mets/Dodgers playoff series,” Chernoff recalls. “Pete Franklin and Imus did a [remote] on the air together from the Shea Stadium parking lot.”

It was a much publicized countdown to 660 and thus putting one of New York’s, if not America’s, most famous radio call letters out to pasture. Equally important to gaining the clear channel, 50,000 watts, was what came with the 660 package.

“Emmis bought the dial position and they also cut a deal with Imus,” Chernoff says. “Instead of going to Rockefeller Center, he came to Queens. People listening to Imus didn’t have to change dial positions.”

Afternoons at ‘the ‘FAN with Franklin were uncertain, but the station had cemented mornings with Imus. The upstart sports station now had a market icon, even though his show didn’t concentrate on sports.

‘”[Imus] brought so many more people to the radio station,” Chernoff says. “All of a sudden, the visibility and the better signal at 660, the two things combined made a huge difference.”

While Don Imus featured sports with Don Criqui (from WNBC), Mike Breen and even separately Mike Francesa and Chris Russo, it was not the show’s main focus. “He had kind of reinvented himself and brought himself much more into the political world,” Chernoff remembers. “It gave the station a lot of credibility.”

Less than a year after the 660 takeover with Imus, there was another defining moment. The ill-fated Franklin was terminated, and Mark Mason, then-program director, had the vision of teaming new station talent Francesa with Russo. Despite fighting it, the stars were born!

“It was magical radio for almost 19 years,” Chernoff says. That was until Mike and the Mad Dog’s well-documented breakup in 2008. Russo was headed for Sirius/XM, while Francesa took afternoons for himself. Chernoff was concerned how listeners would react.

“I did worry and it wasn’t because I thought Mike wouldn’t do well,” Chernoff says. “The team had been so intact for so long.” But he says Francesa handled any pressure with aplomb. “It was absolutely amazing how he held on,” Chernoff says. “I give him a ton of credit.”

There was talk of Francesa getting another partner, even conducting several “live” auditions. But nothing could compare with Mike and the Mad Dog, and the idea was scrapped. “We had ideas out of the box, in the box,” Chernoff says. “I was always worried that someone might not last for one reason or another.”

He says finding a strong personality to match Francesa, and not be overwhelmed, was a challenge. “Unless we found a person who could really be a partner–I didn’t want to have it Mike and ‘blank,’ and it was hard to find that person,” Chernoff says. Middays, though, have been a struggle for consistency.

After Ed Coleman and Dave Sims  (The Coleman and the Soul Man), a tandem of Mike Lupica and Len Berman “didn’t work out.” They were split into separate shows. Ultimately, Berman exited because of his busy WNBC workload. Lupica, who now does a show for ESPN 98.7, also wanted out of his contract because of what he considered the long ride from Connecticut every morning.

Then in October 1993, Chernoff hired WWOR/WNYW sports anchor Russ Salzberg to keep the lunchtime listeners. “After a couple of years I felt he needed a partner, so I moved [Steve] Somers from the overnights,” Chernoff says.

At that time Mike and the Mad Dog lengthened the broadcast to its now familiar 1 p.m. start, in the process boosting the midday ratings. After a few years, Salzberg and Somers, a.k.a. The Sweater and the Schmoozer, were done. “I felt it was time to make a change,” Chernoff says. “There was just not enough going on.”

As part of the reworking, Salzberg was out. “It’s hard when you let somebody go who you like,” Chernoff says. “…We didn’t speak to each other for a long time.” Once the decision was made, Chernoff did not permit Salzberg back on the station.

“I just never felt comfortable with that, and that was a very tough thing to do,” Chernoff admits. “Russ was such a good guy and I didn’t think he would do anything bad, but you’re worried about listeners and what they’re going to say.”

As for Steve Somers, he was staying put. One of the WFAN originals, he was given the evening shift. “He has a following,” Chernoff says. “There are a lot of people that just really love the guy.” Chernoff experimented with a former caller, Joe Benigno, first heard on the air as Joe from Saddle River. “He had won a contest that we had done and he had been given an hour on the air,” Chernoff says.

Wanting to make the transition from being a fan to working for the ‘FAN, Benigno went to the Connecticut School of Broadcasting. To gather experience, he purchased time at a small AM station in Elizabeth, New Jersey. When Somers was shifted to dayside, Benigno won the highly sought after overnights, and eventually he added his name to the long list of midday hosts.

Benigno is teamed with Evan Roberts in middays. For Roberts, it’s a homecoming of sorts at WFAN. “When Evan was 10-years-old, his mother had sent me a tape,” Chernoff says. That led to the novelty of Roberts being a “fill-in” for Breen on Imus’ show. Chernoff recalls the I-Man enjoying Roberts’ style so much, he invited him for another stint a couple weeks later. In typical Imus form, he questioned why the youngster was there the next time.

But more than a decade later, the knowledgable kid-turned-adult contacted Chernoff. He asked for feedback on a show he was doing in Baltimore. Impressed, Chernoff offered him shifts. Roberts worked on his craft as the main weekend overnight fill-in host, before joining Beningo in the daylight.

Mornings had been a stable source of revenue and ratings, that was until April 2007 and an off-color remark about the Rutgers’ Women Basketball team on the Imus in the Morning show. The shockwaves were immediate and considerable. Within days, MSNBC, which carried the simulcast, dropped the program. The next day, CBS Radio followed suit.

“It was bad timing, right for wrong,” Chernoff reflects. “Imus was known for saying certain things. And I will still say he didn’t mean anything by it. It just was the wrong use of words.

“There [was] a lot of pressure that Mr. [Les] Moonves decided that the right thing that he felt he had to do was remove Imus from the air. It was sad. I was really unhappy,” Chernoff says.

But Chernoff had a radio station to run, and faced the tough task of replacing the irreplacable. He chose to go back to the station’s roots with a sports show led by Boomer Esiason and Craig Carton (pictured, left to right). The duo did an off-air tryout at Chernoff’s old digs, WNEW-FM.

“]It’s the] best audition I’ve ever heard anybody do,” Chernoff says. “I looked at Chris [Oliviero, SVP] and I said, ‘That’s my morning show.'”

After twenty-five years with some of the best sports radio talent in the country, Chernoff says WFAN’s theme is simple: “Play” to your audience. “[What] we really became is the voice of the fan,” Chernoff says. “Our hosts will do monologues to sometimes get a topic going. We’ll have guests on for various teams, subjects. But we live and die by our listeners.”